A View from Cuba on the Merits of Having Little

Kabir Vega

HAVANA TIMES – This might not be the most pleasant read for those who were born and have grown up with the comforts of a capitalist society. I am going to talk about the movie “Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things.”

Before watching this documentary, I had absolutely no idea that this movement existed, which is an example of good judgement to stop the debauchery that is endangering the future of our planet.

However, I get the sense that Minimalism is an incomplete process of consciousness raising.

It’s not that the people behind the movement are wrong, some of my own beliefs coincide with theirs.   However, I believe that its followers ignore what real abstinence is.

I can understand that more sensible people in over-supplied countries, where consumerism is a part of everyday life, find trying to live with a less an adventure. But, that’s only half of this tumultuous reality.

Cuba is a country where the population have been living with clipped wings ever since 1959, restrained to living a sub-minimalist life without any real opportunities to prosper. Living from day to day with the absolute minimum without even being able to ensure there is food on the table the next day sometimes. However, many Cubans feed off of hypocrisy and the mundane reality that surrounds them and they become incapable of admitting just how poor they really are.

This is why a real Minimalist isn’t someone who rejects comfort and consumerism just like that, they should first get to know those who have absolutely nothing and what this permanent reality means to them. It’s important that they understand what it means to live a life where poverty is the only choice you have.

There’s a scene in the documentary that illustrates my point. Several people do the “333” test, which involves living with 33 items of clothing for 3 months.

It’s a great test for them, almost a spiritual experience. Wearing such a limited number of clothes and also to not let your friends or work colleagues realize that you have been alternating these same items of clothing over the three months.

But getting back to Cuba, I will only give you examples I know firsthand (I don’t need to mention countries that are in a worse economic state than us).

Ever since we were children, we could memorize not only what we had in our own wardrobes but what was in our relatives, friends and even schoolmates’ wardrobes. Most of them didn’t have anything but one nice outfit to go to elegant places in, up to four relatively decent outfits to walk about the neighborhood in and all of the old clothes that hadn’t rotted yet were worn around the house.

And don’t even get me started on shoes! Most people only had one pair for the whole academic year and some didn’t even have that, they had to look after them for three, four or even the five years of university.

You could cover up the fact you had an almost bare wardrobe in the summer, but when winter comes around, even the most pretentious are discovered when they only wear one coat over the entire season. It’s a good thing that winter doesn’t last very long in Cuba…

Another thing that minimalists propose is to live in super small homes, with the advantage of becoming the owner sooner and not having years of loans, interest and anxiety, with the risk of losing the house and mortgage payments in one swift blow. These mini-homes are designed in a way so as to make the most of every inch of space, including foldable and multifunctional furniture.

This will always be their choice, of course, and if they decide to change their minds in the future, they can go back to living in a spacious house or rent out an apartment or buy one with a mortgage. They will never know what it is to live in a house that is less than 100m2, where more than 10 people live together (all from the same family), as many as four different generations under the same roof.

This is why I say this is an incomplete level of awareness, and it is important that they learn about those who live on the sidelines of prosperity before they go rejecting consumerism and excessive comforts. Because to really enjoy living with very little, you need to see reality in all its dimensions.

Kabir Vega

I am a young man whose development in life has not been what many might consider normal or appropriate, but I don’t regret it. Although I am very reserved, I dissent strongly from many things. I believe that society, and not only of Cuba, is wrong and needs to change. I love animals sometimes even more than myself since they lack evil. I am also a fan of the world of Otaku. I started in Havana Times because it allowed me to tell some experiences and perhaps encourage some change in my country. I may be naive in my arguments, but I am true to my principles.

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6 thoughts on “A View from Cuba on the Merits of Having Little

  • I admire how living in isolated Cuba all your life, still provided you with such great international language skills. Do most young Cubans speak English as well as you Kabir?

    Your people’s forced poverty which you naturally hate, and resent rich people coveting as some virtuous hippy lifestyle, once again reminds me of the situation in my country, although in the period before and after the Second World War. That’s when my grandparents shared one pair of shoes between their five siblings for years, and carried them in their hands walking barefoot to a dance so they wouldn’t ruin them. And lived all crammed in one room with so few clothes, that they didn’t fill up one wing of a single wardrobe.

    Even when my grandmother, driven by her memories of lack, miraculously managed to buy her own apartment one day, (in which all her siblings continued to sleep in one room by habit, until she woke up one summer night and shouted at them to disperse to the other rooms!), she could still only offer this choice to her teenage daughter :-‘Shall we spend my whole salary on a restaurant or shall we sleep our hunger off?’

    Eventually, and precisely because of this lack perhaps, all my grandparents became successful and relatively well-off people by their middle years, having earned their money in Western Europe and made sure their,(deliberately fewer), children, never had to suffer like they did. And by the time I, one of their granddaughters was a teenager, I remember them looking at me refusing their money out of hippy idealism, like at some poor, misguided idiot.

    So I agree with your conclusion Kabir:-people who have plenty don’t know what they’re talking about when they preach going back to a (Second World War) life of basics. I can understand that ‘choosing to be a minimalist’ can sound as arrogant to a Cuban as say, a Swede saying out loud-‘Life is so boring and purposeless in our peaceful country, I want to live in those that fight wars.’ But as everyone else in this forum explained and as you sense- there is a reason for the minimalist movement which is not arrogant or ignorant but justified and wise. And which people who only have basics know nothing or little about.

    Like the fact that half the food in an overstuffed store is artificial, because it would be impossible to mass-produce and make so much profit from it with real ingredients, and mass production, competition and profit is a far bigger goal to a consumerist food supplier than the people’s nourishment. So a rich person has to spend an extra hour in a grocery shop reading what every basic item like milk and toilet paper contains, so not to risk getting allergies, too many metals in their body or even eventual cancer. My favourite phenomenon in the capitalist world, is the so called ‘food intolerance’ that the richer you get the more you’re likely to ‘catch’. You pay a nutritionist to take out your blood and tell you what foods your body ‘can’t deal with’ and digest (bread or milk usually among them-something that my grandparents would never understand), and so as much as there is on offer for you to eat you have to avoid half of it (All foods with vitamin C in case of my sister).

    Also, the richer you are, the more likely it is that you are on a life-long diet, or self-imposed hunger, again because if you ate normally, you would be dangerously fat and sick. In a consumerist world, it is the poor that are overweight and the rich who look undernourished, who try to attract partners by resembling skeletons; who at best spend a lot of money on the rare healthy organic food, and at worst, add the missing curves and youth to their bodies through painful plastic surgery. And who therefore have difficulty procreating, or get one or two kids fatally allergic to most foods at a birthday party.

    My great grandmother told my mother:-If I had had a washing machine like you, I would have had 12 kids, not six. Yet somehow this logic always becomes its opposite in practice. The more machines my mother had to make her life easier, the less she was willing to give up that ease and the time they saved her, on having more kids than two. Firstly, you have to spend a lot of time operating those machines, not to mention buying new ones. Because they are deliberately made to last only five years and have no one to fix them, so that you can spend your money on buying new ones. Who was ultimately richer, my grandmother who had one stove that worked for a hundred years, or my mother who had to buy five stoves in twenty years?

    I remember being fascinated when I visited the Taj Mahal in India, hearing that making only one of its ornamented marble windows took one year, and was continued by the son of the builder if the builder happened to die in that time. Because I can’t imagine anyone in the modern ‘advanced world being willing to give up a year of their life making something that will last beyond their life, for 500 years, forever. Instead we build an overabundance of temporary junk that we throw away each day, junk that does nothing else but empty our pockets to suffocate our planet.

    Out of three storeys of several toy shops, I sometimes can’t find a single worthwhile, meaningful gift for my children or their friends. So I look for them online, in other countries, from other ethnicities that I think are more creative or imaginative. And I still can’t erase the image of a little African girl on a beach, displaying her colourful hair pins in a circle around her as her only toys.

    It made me sick of the toys my children had, and sick of myself, sick to y stomach. I just wanted to get rid of all of it, and I think that’s how the Minimalists feel. They know we have too much because someone has too little.

    I’m sorry I wrote so much as a non Cuban, and if it was already in the documentary I didn’t yet see. In the end I can only suggest again, that we refuse the false choice between having less than we need and more than we need. I believe people should strive toward an ideal of having our fundamental and universal needs met and the rest left to our individual creativity. I believe that we can bridge a gap between rich and poor although it is a process, not a one-off thing. Let’s make minimalism useful, by sending all the food you can afford to be on a diet from, and all the stuff you can afford to throw away, to those who need it.

  • Just as Circles says, I can only talk about Cuba because here is where I have spent all my life. But mighty58, my intention isn’t to criticize Minimalists as something bad, I really admire them, but for the true joy of living with little, they need to know what is to have nothing.

  • First world problems, as the saying goes. But you need to take the minimalist movement within that context, it is borne from a world where advertising-driven consumerism is rampant, and intended audience is those who come from that world but are seeking an alternate path. Dismissing it as frivolous because conditions are worse in Cuba is missing the point somewhat.

  • Rogelio, as a site that specializes on Cuba and most of the writers are Cuban it makes sense that the articles are mainly about Cuba. I personally think that, in those Cold War decades, Cuba gave the USSR something more than sugar in exchange for the billions in subsidies, part of which was actually debt being acrued.

  • With all the respect, I always see articles about Cuba, why not about the poverty in Africa and South America and Asia, Cuba in the 1980 didn’t need anything life was fine, we give to URSS our sugar they gave us what we needed, we don’t have children without school or medical assistant.

  • Kabir I can see why you wrote this piece but really, you are comparing apples with oranges. I haven’t seen the documentary but I can see how it could seem trite to someone like you who has experienced a lifetime of a lack of basics. The thing you have to remember is that it is about people who come from capitalist and highly consumerist economies deciding not to play ball anymore. Of course this is a lifestyle choice but within these kind of economies where people have choices it is an important choice and that is the point. They are not doing it to mock anyone living in poverty nor are they playing at being poor like Marie Antoinette.

    I have been coming to Cuba for almost 30 years and I am more than aware that for the last 20 or so, I have been wearing many of the same clothes and wondering what my Cuban family thinks of me for doing so! I don’t live somewhere where we have long periods of heat so my clothes don’t wear out and I’m not the kind of person who enjoys buying clothes for the sake of it. Meanwhile my family who are definitely not wealthy nor part of the Cuban bourgeoisie/political elite manage to find resources to buy quantities of new and branded clothes and trainers. The other thing I have noticed is the increasing size of portions in restaurants: some people still take doggy bags home to abuela but mostly I’ve noticed Cubans eating far more than they need. As our world rattles to hell in a handcart, we all need to think about how and why we consume when we do regardless of what kind of economy we live in.

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